Comparing our number of feet to the size of our shoes
In any online discussion about climate change, a broad number of themes recur pretty consistently. Subtract the flood of endlessly repeated already debunked talking points and trollish belligerence and the volume has dropped almost as much as the quality has improved. Now you can discern a smaller but regular flow of extreme weather events, studies and findings – more and bigger wildfires that don’t constrain themselves to a season anymore, records for biggest tropical storm ever recorded being toppled over and over again – all of that stuff. Take them out of the mix and things again become a lot quieter. We’ll also exclude cheerleading for nuclear energy (which is definitely not helping; I’ll detail how in another post). Vegans don’t pipe in as often as the nuke jockeys do to remind us that their carbon footprint is far smaller than any meat eater’s. Their evidence based argument is stronger, but they aren’t as vocal because our culture has a lot of free floating hostility towards vegans so many commenters like to hate on them. Without them, what’s left includes intermittent personal anecdotes and questions: “Am I the only one here whose family is in denial about this and doesn’t know how to resolve it with them? How do you not feel overwhelmed by it all?” Now drop those, too. FInally, rare evidence based discussions about specific policies and larger context become apparent once you sift this far down, like panning for gold. This is where we see acknowledgement that we can‘t separate good climate policy from inclusive social policy and anticapitalist degrowth because they so completely intersect. Silence that conversation, and by far the loudest signal you’re left with will be assertions that “It’s all really about the thing that no one wants to talk about: overpopulation.”
Some such comments we discarded right at the beginning with the climate deniers, but we also see this same sentiment from earnest activists expressing genuine concern about the Earth’s carrying capacity. This thing we are commonly told no one wants to talk about actually has a lot of different people that want to talk about it. It took at least twenty thousand years of agriculture to reach a population of one billion humans, but climbing from six billion to seven billion only took us twelve years, and we’re still accelerating. Opinions are hotly contested as to exactly what the right number is, but it’s inescapable that there is an upper limit to how many humans our world could support. Any physical resource you can name — living space, drinkable water, food production capacity — has a limited supply. Drop a couple of bacteria in a big Petri dish full of nutrients and their population will explode, too, but only until they use those nutrients up. Collapse always follows. Thinking about resource overshoot brings us into the area of lifeboat ethics, often used to argue against helping the poor. If there’s only so much of what we need to go around, the argument goes, then we can’t really afford all of those extra mouths to feed.
So let’s get something straight before we tread any farther down that dark road. Over the whole planet and over the long term, population is definitely an issue, but in the immediate term, particularly in the context of climate change, it is not the issue at all. Or rather, it is, but not in the ways that you might think. The “overpopulation causes climate change” argument is primarily made by people in wealthy countries that have enormous individual carbon footprints as a way to point fingers away from their personal responsibility. Humanity’s ecological impact on the planet is measured by counting the number of people and multiplying that number by the impact of their individual lifestyles. It has much less to do with how many feet there are are and a lot more with how fancy the shoes are. As long as one average Canadian emits more greenhouse gases than fifty average Haitians, one more Canadian still makes a much bigger impact than twenty or thirty more Haitians. During a time when 52% of global population growth took place in “third world” nations, their puny contribution raised global emissions only 13%, while a mere 7% population growth in wealthy nations kicked emissions up a massive 29%. That it has a role in climate change is completely true, but to call it the primary factor is like proclaiming that the area of a rectangle is only the result of its length and that its width has absolutely nothing to do with it. What drives emissions is not people, but lifestyles. The footprint of just one child born to an American billionaire will easily eclipse that of thousands of poor children born in the same nation, because that’s what the private jet to your private island lifestyle adds up to. Any conversation about the planet’s carrying capacity is meaningless without discussing the lifestyles we expect to maintain. If everyone lived like most of sub-Saharan Africa, Earth could handle twelve billion of us, but at a suburban North American standard, a single billion’s not sustainable. A successful survival strategy is about containing expectations more than curtailing numbers. We just need to learn to like wearing simpler shoes.
Beyond the climate, when we talk about the sixth mass extinction that we’ve triggered, and the historical fact that mass extinctions are not traditionally very forgiving to life forms residing at the top of collapsing food chains, population becomes more urgent. Collapsing biodiversity and declining non human populations are the biggest and most urgent part of that picture, but of course we play a central role. Population pressure is one of five primary ways that we are crowding out other forms of life with which we currently share the globe, the other four being habitat destruction, introducing invasive species, pollution, and over-harvesting. We’d be foolish to expect total human population to keep skyrocketing anyway, so some of this discussion is moot. Covid’s global death toll to date (somewhat below two million as I write) is the barest drop in the supersized bucket of humanity, but a warmer world means more zoonotic diseases beyond it, weather changes impacting crop production, leading to more violent conflict, and so on. Today’s population is unthinkably big — if we displayed one different person’s face every second without ever pausing it would take more than 247 years to glance at 7.8 billion people — but it will decline no matter what we do. When natural systems start breaking down, impacts on populations become inescapable.
When we come back to the lifeboat ethics argument, that’s the place where overpopulation is truly most problematic today. We can file it firmly under “extremists ruin everything.” With record breaking climate impacts occurring in clusters, those comfortable insisting that a warming world is a totally made up scam are dwindling. Some will deny the obvious reality visible everywhere they turn to their dying breath — increasingly frantically, which is what underlies their perpetual hostility — but others are pivoting in droves towards pretending that they never once doubted it for a minute. Those people are redirecting their ire into a new argument, and settling on a comfortingly familiar target to blame: “those people.” You know, the ones that they already hate. The extreme right is transforming its position from “climate change isn’t real” to “because climate change means growing scarcity, it’s now them or us.” Once you assert that overpopulation is the problem, it becomes a short leap to saying that killing an awful lot of people must be good for the environment. Most of the people saying things like that have a very clear idea of which populations they would personally like to consider “surplus.”
That’s why the Christchurch mass shooter in New Zealand, for example, not only proclaimed Donald Trump an inspiration, but also cited climate change as a motivation in his manifesto. Since denying it’s real feels increasingly dumb, the new eco fascists are transforming climate change, through its connection to increasing resource scarcity and mass migration, into yet another justification for violence they yearn to inflict on targeted communities. “Overpopulation is the problem,” they’ll grimly intone, “so it’s my heroic duty to reduce the population of unwanted people.” So if overpopulation is today’s problem it’s because it’s yet one more concept being weaponized to further extremist violence. On top of being a convenient way to point climate concerns at poor nations rather than at the rich ones doing all the emitting.
And overpopulation is clearly a problem in the sense that in my estimation, the specific population of extremely hateful people is obviously too damned high.